Malaysian ex-PM Mahathir explains why he quit abruptly

As the only two-time prime minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad also charted several other records – including being the oldest serving elected national leader at age 92 and also among the longest serving in office – but all that was quickly wiped from most people’s minds when he abruptly quit on 24 February 2020.

Already branded a political traitor by many as he had quit then governing majority party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and joined the Pakatan Harapan (PH) Opposition alliance to oust a government administration in power since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, Dr Mahathir’s resignation left a huge government leadership vacuum just as the novel coronavirus outbreak started surging in the Southeast Asian nation.

Dr Mahathir’s abrupt resignation was apparently triggered by pressure to step down from supporters of Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – whom Dr Mahathir had publicly agreed will replace him as the next Malaysian prime minister. The two have a bitter history dating back to 1998 at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis sweeping across the region – with Anwar sacked as deputy PM for sodomy charges, but the duo apparently reconciled decades later to jointly lead and win the 2018 general election.

Aiming to clarify events which led to his resignation, Dr Mahathir has given a lengthy account at his official blog at

Pressured by Anwar’s supporters

“Many believe that the reason Anwar could not be the prime minister is because I prevented him,” he wrote in the blog post. “It is true that I used to think that for some reason he was disqualified to be the prime minister of Malaysia.”

Explaining why he decided to reconcile with Anwar, he wrote: “But when Najib ((then prime minister Najib Razak) became a kleptocrat, I was willing to work with Anwar to bring down Najib. I do not oppose the Pakatan Harapan proposal that Anwar will replace me when I resign. But it is not yet time for Anwar’s friends to demand that I resign.”

Dr Mahathir said he already had an inkling of what was about to transpire in the days ahead of his resignation as there had been some unhappiness among members at his party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) at being largely sidelined by PH main components of Anwar-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP).

“On 21st February, 2020, I was told by Muhyiddin (Yassin, current prime minister of Malaysia) and some Bersatu leaders that on that night the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council Meeting would urge me to resign for Anwar to be appointed prime minister. It is said that I will be forced to appoint Anwar as deputy prime minister (DPM) immediately.”

Since the PH electoral win in 2018, Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail had been appointed DPM – a tenure which just reached the 22-month mark then.

“Muhyiddin’s purpose is for me to agree for Bersatu to leave Pakatan Harapan to overthrow the Pakatan Harapan government,” explained Dr Mahathir, noting the former and Bersatu secretary-general Hamzah Zainuddin had forged an alliance with PKR stalwart Mohamed Azmin Ali.

So many betrayals

Azmin had felt betrayed by Anwar, who is believed to be linked to a sex video purportedly of Azmin in an illicit affair – though it was later dismissed by Malaysian police. His defection to Muhyiddin and Hamzah is especially significant as Azmin is the powerhouse for PKR’s meteoric rise after Anwar’s arrest in 1998, with many portraying him as akin to St Paul’s evangelization of Christianity in the absence of Jesus Christ.

But Anwar’s mistrust of Azmin ran deep – suspecting him to be a mole in the pocket of Dr Mahathir, who’d advised Azmin to be Anwar’s personal secretary since 1987 throughout Anwar’s days in the Cabinet as minister and eventually DPM. Though Azmin stayed loyal to Anwar after the latter’s sacking by Dr Mahathir and built up PKR to champion Anwar, there was still another fly in the ointment.

When Anwar was charged with sodomy, a prosecution witness was Azmin’s younger sister Ummi Hafilda Ali. This was never forgotten by Anwar while he served out his prison sentence after being found guilty of sodomy.

Amid this backdrop of backstabbing come February 2020, Dr Mahathir wrote Muhyiddin, Azmin and Hamzah had planned to work with a new UMNO partnership with former political rival Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) – called Muafakat Nasional – to forge a new alliance to replace the PH government.

Dr Mahathir also claimed Azmin had confirmed if the proposal for Anwar to be immediately appointed DPM is made in the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council that night, he would walk out.

“But that night, the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council meeting, after long discussions, agreed that I should be empowered to resign whenever I choose. This means that Pakatan Harapan still supports me. The evil alliance to reject me did not materialize as claimed by Muhyiddin and his cronies. I thought there was no reason then as to why I should agree to Bersatu leaving PH.”

“On 23rd February, I told Muhyiddin that his plan for Bersatu to exit from Pakatan Harapan should be postponed because PH still supports me as prime minister.”

Bersatu exit starts domino fall

“When the Bersatu Supreme Leadership Council convened after my meeting with Muhyiddin and his friends, I appealed for the postponement of the Bersatu proposal to leave PH. I recommended that Bersatu wait and see PH’s behavior.”

“Cutting the story short, the Leadership Council rejected my recommendation and agreed for Bersatu to leave Pakatan Harapan immediately. Some pounded on the table and loudly supported Muhyiddin to get out of PH.”

“For me this was the final straw. It showed support for me as party chairman no longer exists. The decision also meant that Bersatu has left Pakatan Harapan and the PH government has fallen.”

“All night I thought about my position. Losing trust in me means I can no longer be Bersatu chairman. If I am no longer Bersatu chairman and PH is no longer the government, I will no longer be prime minister.”

Dr Mahathir said that same night, Muhyiddin – together with UMNO and PAS leaders – were at the Sheraton Hotel. “Muhyiddin’s willingness as Bersatu president to be with the enemies of Pakatan Harapan meant that the plan to form a Perikatan Nasional government has come true.”

“I decided to declare that I had resigned as Bersatu chairman and prime minister. Although there are rumors that I will be accepted by the coalition of Muafakat and Bersatu as prime minister, I can not accept because UMNO criminals will be part of the government I will lead.”

Anwar’s PM dream in tatters

Dr Mahathir said his resignation as prime minister “has nothing to do with Pakatan Harapan’s proposal for Anwar to take over as prime minister after I resign”.

“With Bersatu and Azmin’s faction leaving Pakatan Harapan, PH is no longer the government and I am no longer the prime minister. The one who will be prime minister is the person who gets the majority support of MPs during their audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.”

Dr Mahathir noted that prior to the Agong’s audience, 92 members from Keadilan, DAP and another PH component Parti Amanah Negara had named Anwar as their choice.

“PH has rejected me as prime minister. I only got 66 members.”

“If all three parties in Pakatan Harapan nominate me as their candidate, I will get 158 ​​votes after adding the 66 members who support me. But because they gave 92 to Anwar, I lost and Anwar also failed.”

“If I got 92 from Pakatan Harapan and thus the Pakatan Harapan government is maintained, I would have returned to be the prime minister of Pakatan Harapan. And when I resign, Anwar will be the prime minister according to the plans of Pakatan Harapan.”

“After Anwar’s candidacy failed, Pakatan Harapan wanted to return to support me as the prime ministerial candidate. Anwar also agreed but on the condition that he be appointed DPM. I did not agree because I want to keep the old Cabinet.”

“Finally Anwar agreed and efforts were made to get a sufficient number of MPs for Pakatan Harapan to return to government. With the support of Sabah party members, the number increased to 114.”

“Unfortunately, Muhyiddin has managed to get the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s approval for him to be appointed prime minister.”

Aiming to reclaim power

Dr Mahathir wrote the effort to overthrow the Perikatan Nasional government was continued by Pakatan Harapan while the Perikatan Nasional government swiftly imposed draconian measures – including a national lockdown of several weeks – in an effort to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.

Muhyiddin’s administration seemed to be doing all the right things to ensure the well-being of Malaysians – including channeling various direct cash into the pockets of citizens and pumping funds to prevent the national economy from sinking too much.

And then, another political crisis broke when the PH-led Sabah state administration collapsed, losing majority as some elected representatives crossed over to the Perikatan Nasional alliance. But unlike the change in administration at the national level back in February 2020, Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal decided to dissolve the state assembly and call for fresh elections.

In-person campaigning and voting at Sabah’s state election in September had an unfortunate consequence – unleashing a whole slew of Covid-19 infections which has spread across Malaysia and forcing widespread lockdowns again, just shy of the whole country.

And while national focus was on combating this latest coronavirus infections surge and rapidly rising death toll, Anwar declared he had obtained enough support of MPs in Parliament (Dewan Rakyat) to wrest government control away from Muhyiddin-led Perikatan Nasional.

While these political shenanigans were taking place, Dr Mahathir and others who had either left voluntarily or got ejected from Bersatu formed a new political party Parti Pejuang Tanah Air. 

… but simmering tensions continue to divide

“My party and my supporters agree to join this effort. But Anwar completely rejected my participation. If I am rejected, my supporters will not join this proposal. And we will not get another three members in the Parliament to have enough majority.”

“It has been proposed that I hold the post of prime minister for 6 months before surrendering to Anwar. Amanah and some DAP members agreed. But Anwar refused. Anwar did not want me involved at all. But if I am not given a place, my supporters will not support Pakatan Harapan’s proposal. After all it is quite difficult to find three more people to get the majority.”

“My promise to make way for Anwar after 6 months was not accepted or trusted by Anwar.”

Dr Mahathir described a reasonable plan being when Parliament convenes, if Pakatan Harapan has enough support of MPs, Muhyiddin can be defeated during a no-confidence vote – with the Opposition having support of 114 MPs (out of 222 MPs).

“What happened was that Muhyiddin still got 112 and could not be defeated during the debate on the removal of the Speaker of the House. This means that Muhyiddin won and remained as PM. Anwar lost and did not become PM.”

Dr Mahathir noted Anwar later declared he had enough support of MPs in Parliament and as such, Muhyiddin was no longer the prime minister. Both me and my supporters were rejected by Anwar because he already had a sufficient amount of support from MPs.

“But we all know that Anwar still cannot be the prime minister. Anwar’s statement that he had enough support of MPs was found to be untrue. In Anwar’s planning I have no place. It is clear that after setting aside me, Anwar did not win.”

Recalling that Anwar had made a similar failed claim of getting enough support of MPs to force a change in government some years back, Dr Mahathir posed: “In 2008, Anwar failed. Was I also the one who then stopped Anwar?”

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